May It Please the Palate: Number One Chinese Restaurant

When my wife and I visited Kauai, we were intrigued by the name of a restaurant we frequently passed. No doubt the owners of the “Super Number One Chinese Restaurant” wanted to distinguish themselves from anything merely called “Number One Chinese Restaurant.” While the food was pleasant, I still felt mortal.

Lo and behold, as I was browsing one day in Literati, an independent Ann Arbor book store, I came across a novel titled “Number One Chinese Restaurant.” A first effort by local author Lillian Li, it was well received, earning an “NPR Best Book of 2018” honor among other accolades. It’s a spirited, fictional account of the Beijing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland, and the intertwining lives within. For a young author, Ms. Li demonstrates remarkable insight to her characters, men and women, young and old. But more importantly for my purposes, she aptly described the internal chaos of a popular restaurant, that against all odds, manages to put good food on the table, hundreds of times a night. (Not coincidentally, she said in an interview that her favorite novel was Kitchen Confidential¸ Anthony Bourdain’s inside account of restaurant life.)

After finishing Ms. Li’s book, I determined to eat more Chinese food, especially the legendary dish of Beijing (Peking) Duck, which I’d never had. She lovingly described the tableside carving, which involved precisely 28 slices of this delicacy (one diner realizes something is wrong when she receives 29). I set out to learn more about Peking Duck, and to try it myself.

The dish was developed around 700 years ago during China’s imperial era, in Peking, a city now properly called Beijing (though it usually retains the name Peking Duck, also a nod to the type of duck used, the Pekin duck). It’s a complex, two-day process that cannot easily be replicated at home. Young ducks are fattened, slaughtered, plucked, and pumped with air to separate the skin from the fat. Then they are briefly boiled, and coated with a glaze and spices before being hung to dry. The ducks are then either hung and roasted in an open oven, or more conventionally in a closed one.

The finished product is carved tableside, and the crispy, aromatic skin is the star. Diners are elaborately presented with the meat and skin, Chinese pancakes, a sweet bean or hoisin sauce, and scallions, cucumbers or radishes as garnishes. Eating is a ritual that may involve painting the duck with sauce (using a scallion as a brush), rolling it in a pancake, and eating with the hands.

Peking duck is a staple of Chinese cuisine, history, and culture. It was served to emporers, and the duck houses in Beijing compete to provide the best. President Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, was especially captivated by the duck he was served in when meeting Zhou En-Lai in 1971, and it contributed to improved relations between the nations.

I found that the Farmington Hills restaurant Hong Hua does a pretty good version of Peking Duck, and the portion was large enough to feed me for days. Like many meats, the preparation process may leave one squeamish (especially the force-feeding of young ducks, which has led to some protests). For me, in the spirit of research, I am glad to have at least tried this important and time-honored dish, and to present my findings.

Kudos to Lillian Li for piquing my literary side, and the education of my palate.
Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht & Roumel PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil right litigation. He has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for “Current” magazine in Ann Arbor. Follow him at Twitter @nickroumel or Instagram @nroumel.